Face to Face with the Abbot

The news this week is shaping up to be full of Abbots and of particular interest to the History of Parliament is a certain Abbot of St Albans cathedral who was also a long-serving parliamentarian in the fifteenth century, John Wheathampstead. The editor of our 1461-1504 project, Dr Hannes Kleineke, explains…

Central to the work of colleagues at the History of Parliament is the pursuit of as full a knowledge as possible of the personalities of long-dead parliamentarians, and, where no depiction survives, it is often unavoidable to speculate what these men might have actually looked like. For the early centuries, we occasionally get a heavily stylised image in a stained glass window, manuscript or monumental brass. In a few fortunate instances, we have a full funeral monument, showing the man commemorated in 3D, and, where remains of colouring survive, with an indication of the original technicolor. Yet, even these serenely slumbering figures are difficult to translate into real, living people.

It is thus all the more exciting when the discovery of the remains of an early parliamentarian combined with technological advances makes it possible, quite literally, to put a face on a man of whom we have long known, and – as is today widely reported in the media – this has just been done for John Wheathampstead, abbot of St Albans.

A ‘local lad’ from Hertfordshire, Wheathampstead was educated at the school of the abbey that he would enter as a novice at a still young age, and in 1420, only in about his late 20s, went on to become its abbot. He was to preside over the house during and beyond the minority of Henry VI, but after some 20 years resigned his abbacy in 1440. Yet, his retirement was not to last, for following the death of Abbot John Stokes in 1451 the monks – perhaps under the impression of the previous year’s political upheavals – once more turned to their experienced former head and Wheathampstead accepted election for a second time. He might well have regretted this decision, as this second abbacy coincided with the successive crises of King Henry VI’s collapse into mental and physical incapacity, and the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, most notably two pitched battles in the streets of St Albans and its surroundings, which left their mark on the abbey and its estates.

A facial reconstruction of John of Wheathampstead. Picture: Liverpool John Moores University and Facelab

In the period before the Reformation, the heads of a number of the great abbeys of England, St Albans among them, were summoned to the House of Lords, and Wheathampstead’s two long abbacies thus made him one of the most experienced parliamentarians of his age. During his first abbacy, he was summoned to nine successive parliaments, and this played his part, inter alia, in framing the arrangements for the government of England during the young Henry VI’s long minority. It is likely that in this period his relationship with the king’s uncle, the Protector Humphrey duke of Gloucester – who would eventually be buried in St Albans abbey – came to the fore.

Wheathampstead’s second abbacy saw much high political drama played out in the six further Parliaments to which he was summoned, and his experience may have been valued on questions such as the conduct of the government during the King’s incapacity, and later, in 1460, over the duke of York’s claim to the throne.

Wheathampstead was a shrewd observer and an articulate commentator, whose abbatial ‘registers’ contain some interesting insights. A particular target for his venom was Thomas Charlton, a Hertfordshire landowner, who was elected Speaker of the Commons in 1454 following the arrest and imprisonment of his predecessor, Thomas Thorpe. The abbot was hardly an impartial observer, for to his mind Charlton had merely sought the Speakership in order to circumvent the common law and deprive his abbey of the manor of Burston. Although Wheathampstead admitted with grudging admiration that Charlton was ‘prudent,… astute and precise’, he did not tire of fulminating against this ‘seditious knight’ with his ‘fox-like habits’ and his ‘haughty heart’, who had not only availed himself of ‘a simple and ignorant man’ in the pursuit of is immoral ends, but who, after being foiled by the experienced abbot in Parliament in 1454, had ‘returning to his own vomit, in the manner of a dog’ dared to make a second attempt to wrest Burston from the monks.

The discovery of Wheathampstead’s remains in 2017 has now allowed the Face Lab group at Liverpool John Moores University to create an impression of what he may have looked like in real life, and enables us, for once, to come literally face to face with a central figure in the parliamentary history of the fifteenth century.

You might also be interested to see Wheathampstead’s modern day look alikes.

H.W.K.

Further reading:

James Clark, ‘Whethamstede , John (c.1392–1465)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). <doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29197.> 

Registrum Abbatiae Johannis Whetehamstede, Abbatis Monasterii Sancti Albani, ed. H. T. Riley (Rolls Series) (2 vols., 1872-3).

A biography of Speaker Thomas Charlton features in our recently published volumes House of Commons 1422-61. Find out more about the publication here.

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